Proper 5 (June 5-11)
Texts: Luke 7:11-17;
Gal. 1:11-24; 1 Kings 17:17-24
THE COLLISION BETWEEN LIFE AND DEATH (1)
When I was nine years old, our family moved to a new subdivision in the suburbs. Ours was one of the very first houses to go up, in fact, so there weren’t many playmates those first several years in the new house. But my playground was hundreds of construction sites for blocks around. When I was otherwise bored, I’d simply go watch the workers or play in an empty basement hole, with its high mounds of dirt all around. It was fun to watch the heavy equipment digging those holes and then later smoothing out the surrounding landscape. I liked the bulldozers the best. They were so powerful! With their big engines and heavy treads, they could move anything. I used to think that nothing could stop the bulldozer. If something got in its path, it would knock it down, push it over, or move it out of the way.
Bulldozer is the image I want to begin with today. Another good word for it might be “juggernaut,” which Webster’s defines as a “massive, inexorable force or object that crushes whatever is in its path.” That sounds like a bulldozer to me!
In today’s Gospel lesson we’ve got a head-on collision between a funeral procession, rolling out of the city like a bulldozer, and a procession of folks following Christ on his way in. Luke presents this funeral procession, I think, as symbolizing the juggernaut of death colliding with the Jesus the giver of life. It is a powerful symbol of how death seemingly bulldozes its way through the world. Right now, that juggernaut is bulldozing its way through one nation after another, through every community on face of the earth. In the Gospel lesson, it’s bulldozing its way through the town of Nain.
According to the burial customs at the time, this young man had probably died that day; burials were most often done the same day. And the funeral procession was an important part of the process, because it was itself the way to get the word out about someone’s death. People would see the procession and know someone had died. Unlike our quiet ways today, in which we try not to cry or make a commotion, it was part of the grieving process, and part of the calling others to join in, to weep and wail and to make a great commotion. Along the way, then, the funeral procession would pick up steam. Villagers would hear the commotion and join in the procession as it passed by. Even a small family could start a procession and accumulate a large crowd by the time it reached the city gate. Like a bulldozer scooping up more and more earth as it goes along, the ancient funeral procession scooped up more and more people as it traveled through a village.
Luke wants us to be able to see our own situation here, too, not just a funeral procession of long ago. For the juggernaut of death is still rolling along, bulldozing its way through our world, scooping up more and more people. Not a single one of us can escape that juggernaut. It’s only a matter of time before it rolls over each one of us. Every day we pick up the newspaper and see where its been. And sometimes we don’t even have to pick up the paper.
Yes, today Luke is giving us a powerful image of that juggernaut of death emerging from the city gate. But Jesus is coming into the city, on a collision course. It is a collision between the forces of death and life. They meet at the city gate, a place of battle in the ancient world. There would be hand-to-hand combat at the city gate, as invaders tried to storm a city and the citizens tried to defend it. There in the city gate, Jesus confronted the juggernaut. Someone had to move. Something had to give.
Jesus wasn’t into hand-to-hand combat, of course. He came to battle only with a word, a powerful word that he came not only to speak but to live out. The word which Luke uses at this point is “compassion.” Jesus began his struggle with death by having compassion on this widow. And then he speaks a word of comfort and hope: “Do not weep,” he says. Finally he puts it into action. Ignoring their rules of cleanliness and purity, he walks right up to the stretcher on which they carried her son and touches it, saying, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” With this powerful word, the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.
Jesus gave him back to his mother. Did you catch that? Because it’s very significant. Jesus didn’t only raise the young man, but he gave back to the woman her only real chance of surviving, too. For the only Social Security system of the ancient world was for a woman to have a large family, especially sons. Women had no opportunity for financial independence like today. Their only chance of survival was to somehow be yoked to a man. In the case of this widow, the only two men in her life had now died. She was the epitome of vulnerability; the juggernaut of death would surely scoop her up next. But Jesus, the giver of life, collided with this procession of death, and he had compassion on her.
Yes, Jesus came to do battle at the city gate armed only with compassion. Any army officer will tell you that that’s the worst thing be have with you. The first moment you begin to have compassion in the face of an enemy is most likely the moment you yourself will be killed. Compassion makes us vulnerable, doesn’t it? Yes, Jesus became vulnerable with this widow. He had compassion on her.
Armed only with the truth of compassion for the victims of powers of death, Jesus did in fact become vulnerable even to the point of his own death. He didn’t just speak a word of compassion, he lived it. And the forces of death scooped him up, too. But only for three days. For this powerful word of compassion is also God’s word of life. The word that Jesus spoke to this young man–“Rise up!”–is the same word that God speaks to all of us through Jesus’ resurrection. And it is now we who are the body of Christ in this world, left to speak that powerful word of life, the word of compassion for the victims of the powers of death. And we have to ask ourselves, “Which procession am I part of, that funeral procession, the juggernaut of the powers of death? Or Christ’s procession of life armed with compassion and vulnerable in the face of death?”
This is not a frivolous question. We may answer to quickly, “Well, I’m on Jesus side, of course.” But St. Paul had to ask himself that question. In fact, he was fortunate enough to have Jesus knock him off his horse on the way to Damascus one day, and Jesus himself posed the question to Paul, “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?” Well, this had to have come as quite a shock to St. Paul, who in his own Jewish circles was known as Saul. Paul had seen himself as on the side of what seemed the most outstanding politics of his day, the Jewish Law. He was an upstanding citizen, zealous in his defense, a true patriot, if you will. He believed in his way of life as the most humane and civilized of its time. But the crucified and risen one confronted him one day, blinded him, and then made him to see otherwise. His way may have been civilized, but in its zealous defense had only allied itself with that juggernaut of death. Paul had to come to see his violence, that he was unwittingly a part of the procession of death. He had to come to know a different way, the way of compassion, which is the way of life.
So we ask ourselves seriously, “Which procession am I a part of?” We live in a crazy time, with the juggernaut of death all around us. And, like it or not, even the political decisions that each of us makes has a great bearing on which procession we find ourselves a part of. I don’t think it’s as simple as which party we align ourselves with, or which political program we come to back. But Jesus has given us one clear word to guide us and empower us, that word of compassion for the vulnerable. We are called to comfort and to serve those who are being rolled over by death and the shadow of death. What are we going to say in the face of the juggernaut? What are we going to do? Where are we going to get the faith to have compassion for the victims of famine or poverty or crime or AIDS or…you name it? We’ll get it from Christ, who promises us life, even in the face of death. Yes, armed with compassion, we will be as vulnerable as he was. One day we’re going to get caught up in the same juggernaut of death. And Christ will be there to meet our funeral procession to say to each of us, “Young man” or “Young woman” (for even the very old seem young to him), “You, I say to you, rise.” And we shall.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, June 24-25, 1995
1. This sermon is based in part on the sermon “Confronting the Juggernaut,” by Christopher G. Milarch, published in Augsburg Sermons 3: Gospels, Series C [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1994], pages 142-146.